“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, August 15, 2008

“Let it be”

“Let it be”—it's the language of Paul McCartney but it's also the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Being lets things be. Poetry gives us unique access to this letting-be quality of Being.

Cue a thousand environmental maxims, poems, views. (For a good intro, see my colleague Louise Economides's essay online.)

Something is so right about it. But something feels so wrong as well.

For example--what do we let be? When letting-be becomes a political question, the Being really hits the fan.

Do we let Exxon be? Do we let global warming be? Do we let the sixth mass extinction event (for which we ourselves are responsible) be?

There are Heideggerians who seriously suggest this. Any kind of intervention into the substance of reality is seen as yet another inevitably failed attempt to not let be.

What I've read of them recently convinces me more than ever that the ideological language of immersion in the lifeworld—profoundly environmentalist language, derived from Heidegger—is complicit with current social and ecological conditions.

This sounds counterintuitive, but it's no different than driving past what looks like two separate buildings that turn out to be part of the same structure, a kind of parallax.

Insisting on our embeddedness (like Iraq War reporters) in the “world” is—shocking thought—part of the problem.


Unknown said...

Hi. I don't know of any Heideggerians who would seriously claim that "any kind of intervention into the substance of reality is seen as yet another inevitably failed attempt to not let be." This kind of groovy-Heidegger is popular at Berkeley for historically contingent reasons, but even Berkeley Heideggerians understand that the entire body of Heidegger's thinking turns on the notion that language, art, and practice innovate upon--rather than merely accepting--given worlds (and that reality is exactly not a matter of "substance" but of interpretive use). In B&T, Dasein takes up tradition and projects it into future possibilities. In later Heidegger, the work of art is a founding and grounding of ontological style upon the past, while it is also a bestowing: revealing new worlds.

Timothy Morton said...

Perhaps so—but this makes it worse for Heidegger, no? Because then there's not much difference between Gelassenheit and some more actively construed agency—it's just a matter of aesthetic shading. Which would support my general point that Heidegger is indeed not just a nice cuddly hippie. Right?

Unknown said...

Hehehe. Oh, damn! Well, now I'm going to have to return my Heidegger Chia pet, which I bought on Telegraph Avenue: shaggy, tie-dyed and sandaled (Husserl bong attachment optional). So sad. Of course, you've figured out that my hippie Heidegger arrived by way of Burt Dreyfus and the emergent school of "Cali-phenomenolgy." (It's really called that. True story!) And, yes, ol' Marty (hard-party) Heidegger veered much closer to the late-Weimar version of a redneck than to Dreyfus' vision, to be sure. And the fact that anyone could turn MH--the man who had Husserl's name removed from the dedication page of B&T--into anything even remotely Paul McCartney-esque is testimony to a Herculean intellectual effort. Nonetheless, it could be argued, the Heidegger of Gelassenheit, of Building, Dwelling, Thinking, and of The Thing is of one mind, and the Heidegger of the Technology essay of quite another. The point, though, as I take it, is that deep-ecology (and even Jonathan Skinner's Ecopoetics journal) might owe an unwitting debt to Heidegger--not for stressing "interconnectedness" (the shared Being of beings), nor for "letting beings be" but for stressing a structural homology between our receptive/innovative role as world-disclosers (of whatever will count as "nature") and our receptive/innovative role in language (poesis). This is all later Heidegger, sure, but it took him a while to find out what he wanted to say :) Also, though, the "letting" in "letting beings be" (or "releasement," so called) is not a mere withdrawing or quietism (like his Nazism was), but an active, agentive undertaking, similar to being spoken by language, which does not, after all, simply mean repeating what has been said but re-gestalting the entire context of saying. At any rate, it seems to me that the options do not, cannot, simply reduce to "do-nothingism" or full on technological agency. After all, world-disclosure (innovation/preservation) seems like both and neither form of agency. Fun stuff!